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El Chapo convicted in trial that revealed drug cartel’s brutality and corruption

El Chapo convicted in trial that revealed drug cartel’s brutality and corruption

Guilty verdict against Mexican crime lord after a three-month drug trial in New York City
El Chapo convicted in trial that revealed drug cartel’s brutality and corruption
Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, in federal custody on Long Island, Jan. 19, 2017.
Photographer: U.S. Law Enforcement via The New York Times

NEW YORK — The Mexican crime lord known as El Chapo was convicted Tuesday after a three-month drug trial in New York City that exposed the inner workings of his sprawling cartel, which over decades shipped tons of drugs into the United States and plagued Mexico with relentless bloodshed and corruption.

The guilty verdict against the kingpin, whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, ended the career of a legendary outlaw who also served as a dark folk hero in Mexico, notorious for his innovative smuggling tactics, his violence against competitors, his storied prison breaks and his nearly unstoppable ability to evade the Mexican authorities.

The jury’s decision came more than a week after the panel started deliberations at the trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn where prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence against the cartel leader, including testimony from 56 witnesses, 14 of whom once worked with Guzmán. He faces life in prison at his sentencing after being convicted of all 10 counts.

Not long after the jury got the case Feb. 4, Matthew Whitaker, the acting U.S. attorney general, stepped into the courtroom and shook hands with each of the trial prosecutors, wishing them good luck. Over the next several days, the jurors, appearing to scrutinize the government’s evidence, asked to be given thousands of pages of testimony, including — in an unusual move — the full testimonies of six different prosecution witnesses.

Guzmán’s trial, which took place under intense media scrutiny and tight security from bomb-sniffing dogs, police snipers and federal marshals with radiation sensors, was the first time an American jury heard details about the financing, logistics and bloody history of one of the drug cartels that have long pumped huge amounts of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and synthetic drugs like fentanyl into the United States, earning traffickers billions of dollars.

But despite extensive testimony about private jets filled with cash, bodies burned in bonfires and shocking evidence that Guzmán and his men often drugged and raped young girls, the case also revealed the operatic, even absurd, nature of cartel culture. It featured accounts of traffickers taking target practice with a bazooka, a mariachi playing all night outside a jail cell and a murder plot involving a cyanide-laced arepa.

Although Monday’s conviction dealt a blow to the Sinaloa drug cartel, which Guzmán, 61, helped to run for decades, the group continues to operate, led in part by the kingpin’s sons. In 2016 and 2017, the years when Guzmán was arrested for a final time and sent for prosecution to New York, Mexican heroin production increased by 37 percent and fentanyl seizures at the southwest border more than doubled, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA, in its most recent assessment of the drug trade, noted that Guzmán’s organization and a rising power, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, “remain the greatest criminal drug threat” to the United States.

The top charge of the New York City indictment named Guzmán as a principal leader of a “continuing criminal enterprise” to purchase drugs from suppliers in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Mexico’s Golden Triangle — an area including the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua where most of the country’s heroin and marijuana are produced.

It also accused him of earning a jaw-dropping $14 billion during his career by smuggling up to 200 tons of drugs across the U.S. border in an array of yachts, speedboats, long-range fishing boats, airplanes, cargo trains, semi-submersible submarines, tractor-trailers filled with frozen meat and cans of jalapeños and yet another tunnel (hidden under a pool table in Agua Prieta, Mexico.)

The prosecution was years in the making and Guzmán’s trial drew upon investigative work by the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security Investigations and federal prosecutors in Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Washington, New York and El Paso, Texas. The trial team also relied on scores of local American police officers and authorities in Ecuador, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

The evidence presented at the trial included dozens of surveillance photos, three sets of detailed drug ledgers, several of the defendant’s handwritten letters and hundreds of his most intimate — and incriminating — phone calls and text messages intercepted through four separate wiretap operations.

Prosecutors used all of this to trace Guzmán’s 30-year rise from a young, ambitious trafficker with a knack for speedy smuggling to a billionaire narco lord with an entourage of maids and secretaries, a portfolio of vacation homes — even a ranch with a personal zoo.

Andrea Goldbarg, an assistant U.S. attorney, called the prosecution’s case “an avalanche” during the government’s summations. Even with the help of a Power Point presentation, complete with a slideshow of photos of the kingpin, Goldbarg took almost an entire day to lead the jury through it.

Confronting this onslaught, Guzmán’s lawyers offered little in the way of an affirmative defense, opting instead to use cross-examination to attack the credibility of the witnesses, most of whom were seasoned criminals with their own long histories of lying, cheating, drug dealing and killing.

Late last month, there was frenzied speculation that Guzmán might testify in his own defense. But after he decided against doing so, the entire defense case lasted only 30 minutes — compared to 10 weeks for the prosecution — and consisted of a single witness and a stipulation read into the record.

In his closing argument, Jeffrey Lichtman, one of the defense lawyers, reprised a theme he first introduced during his opening statement in November, telling jurors that the real mastermind of the cartel was Guzmán’s closest partner, Ismael Zambada García.

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